Medicine Balls Are Ancient Fitness Tools That Keep Bouncing Back


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By Dorene Internicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Medicine balls, the fitness tool as ancient as Hippocrates, have bounced, slammed, tossed and twisted their way into today's trendiest workouts, fitness experts say.

The durable, versatile spheres, which can range from 2 to 25 pounds (0.9 to 11 kg), fit into today’s most intense regimes, from boot camps to interval training.

Alonzo Wilson, creator of the New York City fitness studio Tone House, uses medicine ball exercises to strengthen and condition, and to boost team spirit.

He said the people who seek out his brand of extreme athletics often find medicine balls less daunting than his resistance harnesses or cords and ropes.

“They make people feel comfortable,” said Wilson, a former professional athlete. “We use them in partner throws, to hold and turn, to touch the ground with. Slamming the ball down while (jumping) in the air elevates the heart rate.”

In a fast-moving workout, he added, the balls allow freedom of movement.

“With a lot of machinery you’re kind of stuck,” he said. “But with the med ball you can run, jump, grab it, slam it and hold it while not staying in one spot.”

Daniel Taylor, the author of “Conditioning to the Core,” believes versatility is the secret of the medicine ball’s successful trickle-down from elite athletics to everyday workouts.

Taylor, head strength and conditioning coach at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, said at the most basic level it is a user-friendly weight for people who are nervous about weights.

"A pushup executed with a hand on a medicine ball will train stability,” he said. “Throw or slam it (from overhead or against a wall), it can train power efficiently and well.”

But novices should start in the lighter range, advises Deborah McConnell, master trainer at equipment manufacturer Life Fitness.

She said the balls reappeared with the rise of boot camp and small group training classes. Ancient drawings date the medicine ball to almost 3,000 years ago, when Persian wrestlers trained with sand-filled bladders.

In ancient Greece, the physician Hippocrates is said to have stuffed animal skins for patients to toss for “medicinal” purposes. Gladiators used them to prepare for the arena.

The last great medicine ball revival was in the early 1900s.

"There was a game called the Hooverball, like volleyball with a medicine ball tossed over the net,” said McConnell about the trend that started when President Herbert Hoover’s physician suggested his overweight patient use the ball to shape up.

Chris Freytag, a health and fitness coach with the American Council on Exercise, said the latest comeback spurred a rebirth of other weighted balls.

The medicine ball is like a heavy basketball and made to bounce, she explained, while the slam ball is made to slam without breaking and the deadweight ball is sand-filled and does not bounce.

“Now it’s this chic thing,” she said, “maybe because it feels more like playing. You’re not going to toss a hand weight.”

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Matthew Lewis)